(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, September 6.)
The Venerable Dr Peter Carrell was recently announced as the new Bishop-elect of the Anglican diocese of Christchurch. A statement said the Venerable Dr Carrell (churchmen do love their titles) was humbled by the confidence the Anglican community had shown in him and excited by the road ahead.
“With respect to Christchurch city,” he was quoted as saying, “I look forward to working co-operatively with Mayor Lianne Dalziel and the city council on matters of mutual interest and concern, especially challenges facing our city around homelessness, poverty and climate change.”
Of God and salvation, which some Christians still quaintly regard as being at the core of their faith, there was no mention. There was, however, a brief reference to the need for long-term healing of spiritual and mental health crises in the community.
In the same week, Morning Report ran a story about the director of the Anglican Advocacy Unit calling for stricter rules to control deceitful and manipulative property managers. Nothing about saving souls there, either.
Meanwhile, in the Vatican, Pope Francis was addressing business leaders on the need to stop the world’s oceans filling up with plastic waste.
“We cannot allow our seas and oceans to be littered by endless fields of floating plastic,” the Pope said. “We need to pray as if everything depended on God’s providence, and work as if everything depended on us.”
I had to read that last bit two or three times before I figured out what he was saying (or at least, what I think he was saying). But hey, at least God got a look in.
Now I’m no Bible-bashing, repent-or-burn-in-Hell evangelist – far from it. The only time I go near a church is to attend funerals, which I do far too often.
But the examples above strike me as evidence of the mainstream Churches desperately searching for relevance in an increasingly secular world, and of deluding themselves that they will find it by pushing fashionable political barrows.
Another example was the statement distributed to New Zealand Catholics by their bishops prior to the 2017 election. Predictably, it adopted voguish soft-Left positions on taxation, affordable housing and “caring for our planet”.
If I were Catholic, the presumption that I needed the bishops’ guidance on who to vote for would have irritated me even more than the pious platitudes.
But it’s not just the Catholics and Anglicans who have fallen into the trap of taking activist political positions. Even the Salvation Army, for decades a citadel of robust, practical Christianity and evangelisation, seems to have been politicised.
Its social justice advocates are regular fixtures on Radio New Zealand. I reckon the RNZ newsroom has Major Campbell Roberts, the Sallies’ director of social policy, on speed-dial.
Some will say it’s the duty of the Churches to speak out on issues such as climate change, inequality, racism, homelessness, immigration, LGBTQ rights, multiculturalism – and yes, plastic waste too.
Fair enough, but that seems to be all they speak out on. In doing so, they often give the impression they’re currying favour with the activist Left.
The striking emphasis on secular issues in ecclesiastical pronouncements also suggests that Church leaders have decided that since God isn’t getting punters into the pews anymore, they need to try something different.
Maybe they called in the marketing gurus, who suggested they change their branding to something more in tune with a public that has turned away from religion – something that conspicuously signals virtue and compassion, even if it doesn’t come up with solutions.
Certainly the statistics look bad for the mainstream Churches. Between 2001 and 2013, the proportion of New Zealanders claiming no religious belief rose from 30 to 42 per cent.
It’s fair to say this has coincided with a collapse of the Churches’ moral authority – in Catholicism’s case, largely due to its scandalous record on sexual abuse. Just look at the way the formerly compliant Catholic Irish have taken the phone off the hook.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. But the Churches need to understand that they’re competing in a very crowded sector. In pursuing political causes, they risk being just another lot of voices amid the clamour from a vast and ever-proliferating body of strident advocacy groups demanding that the politicians do something.
To put it in marketing terms, they risk losing their vital point of difference – namely, saving souls.
I’m sure most of the people who still faithfully go to church on Sundays, along with the priests and vicars who minister to them, are concerned with more transcendent matters than plastic waste and evil property managers, important though such things are.
So why do Church leaders so often resort to hand-wringing political advocacy? Is it an admission that God just doesn’t cut it anymore? Have the Churches given Him up as a lost cause? It sometimes looks that way.